Vagabonds Ch 4

Sep 16th, 2015
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  1. Sekhmet dumped her gear in the approximate vicinity of the kitchen table, paying no particular mind to what made it onto the intended target and what tumbled into a heap on the floor. Sand flowed from hidden nooks and crannies, having defied attempts to shake it loose until the time was right, leaving a gritty mess from the door to the table. That was always one of the downsides of field work; it always managed to come back home with her despite her best attempts otherwise.
  3. Engrossed as Set was with the television, she hadn’t noticed, or perhaps simply didn’t care to show that she’d noticed, until the loud thump of Sekhmet’s heavy gear caught her attention. “Enjoy poking around in the desert?”
  5. Pulling off her sand-soaked fatigues, Sekhmet left a trail of khaki from the table to her wine cabinet while swiping away sand from her fur and skin. “I always do,” she said with a slight exhale, running a finger from bottle to bottle until she made her selection. With a clink and a slight pop of a cork she poured a glass half-full and swirled it just below her nose. No matter how she may be feeling, the scent of a fine red wine always managed to relax her. “Have you managed to secure an excavation team yet?”
  7. “I did, but…” Set said, hanging her head down from the back of the couch to give her an inverted view of the world.
  9. “…But what?” Sekhmet asked, after she’d let a small pool of the dark, scarlet liquid roll across her tongue.
  11. “Well, sure there were plenty of companies that could’ve started immediately,” Set said in a way that made it obvious those options weren’t an option at all, “But those that can keep a secret are on assignments for at least another few weeks.”
  13. Sekhmet half-frowned. “Nothing you can do to persuade them?”
  15. From the TV came the rising crescendo of orchestral music heralding some climatic moment and stole away Set’s focus. She lurched forward in search of the remote, swearing and carrying on before she finally managed to pause her movie. “If only,” she began after a sigh and some muttering, “But then, if they could be so easily persuaded, that’d call their secrecy into question, wouldn’t it?”
  17. “I suppose,” Sekhmet said, staring at the ruby liquid swirling about in her glass. “Wait, about that group we used last time? Didn’t they say they’d give us priority?”
  19. Set had to think for a moment; there were an awful lot of ‘last times.’ She probably meant that last time, not last time, last time. “Gerald Excavation? The old man died a while back. Supposedly his son hasn’t done a great job since he took over. Rumors of sticky fingers amongst the new crew were all over.”
  21. “A shame,” Sekhmet said with the sort of face made by someone who expected the worst but was still disappointed. “Well, at least that will give me some time to investigate the other sites.”
  23. Ever the encouraging and positive sort, Set yawned with excitement. “Sounds great. You have fun with that.”
  25. One glass wasn’t going to be enough. As she topped off her refill, Sekhmet noticed something, or rather, someone, was missing. “Where’s Sophia?
  27. “Been in her room almost the entire time you’ve been gone,” Set said, glancing at the door to Sophia’s bedroom. “She’s not been in the most sociable of moods.”
  29. “Hasn’t come out at all?” Sekhmet said, quirking a brow.
  31. The fire goddess lazing on the couch laughed once and shook her head slowly. “Only time I’ve seen her is when she comes out to piss. At least she’s not making a mess in there.”
  33. “Can’t say I blame her. That was cruel, even for you,” Sekhmet said, fixing Set with a sharp look as she sipped her wine.
  35. To Sekhmet’s surprise, Set pulled herself upright and narrowed her eyes for a moment before she dismissed whatever her initial thought was with a wave of her paw. “Please, how was I to know she’d go on a rampage like that? I was expecting her to kill a few people, kill the snake, then I’d mop up and call it a night.”
  37. “I meant the kid you made her shoot.”
  39. “Well, that,” Set paused, adding the barest of shrugs, “I thought about taking him, but he’d find out we killed his family sooner or later. That’d get a little messy.”
  41. A backup would’ve been nice, or even a pair to work together. Much as she hated to admit it, Set was right in that regard. There was just one loose detail. “And why, exactly, did you see fit to have her execute him?”
  43. “Seemed like a good opportunity for a test,” Set said with a sort of concealed amusement.
  45. Always with the poking and prodding and her little tests. Just like that, the second glass of wine was gone. “What do you mean by test?”
  47. “She slaughtered and tortured without a shred of hesitation,” Set said, bouncing a foot idly in the air, even as an unusually serious mask set upon her features. “It’s been decades since I’ve seen someone revel in carnage the way she did. But, was it because of the hounds fueling her anger, or was it her true nature? Faced with that kind of choice, most people would’ve succumbed to their guilt. Yet Sophia chose to live.”
  49. “So then, you think she passed your test?” Sekhmet asked, frowning as her bottle was now half empty after giving herself another glass.
  51. “She did,” Set said in a canine-revealing smirk, as if she was a teacher recalling a student’s exceptional performance.
  53. Sekhmet’s eyes became slits. “Even though she tried to shoot herself afterwards?”
  55. “That was just her mind catching up after the fact. What matters is the moment, when no one thinks of the consequences,” Set said, waving away that trifling little detail.
  57. “Except now she has to deal with those consequences,” Sekhmet said with strained impatience. “As do we. She’s of no use to us like that. Unless she can sort herself out soon, we’ll have to find someone else.”
  59. A wicked grin spread from cheek to cheek on Set’s face and she laughed her wicked laugh. “Now who’s the cruel one? Do you intend to run her through? Or maybe you’ll just let her kill herself?”
  61. Sekhmet brought herself up to her full, imposing height. “I intend to deal with her as I see fit.”
  63. The air between the two grew heavy, both of them still and silent as their gazes locked. Just when it seemed the tension would explode and the aftermath would bring about another unplanned renovation of their home, Set was the first to break with a shrug. “Fair enough, you’re the one who found her, after all.”
  65. After that Sekhmet needed a fourth glass, but that’d have to wait. Sinew and muscle relaxed and she breathed out her tension. As trying as she may be, Set did have something of a point – not that it made it any easier to bear. “I think the best thing for now is get her moving.”
  67. “Possibly,” Set said, but as she relaxed and stretched out on the couch, the glare from Sekhmet stated in no uncertain terms that her assistance would be appreciated. “Right,” she added, dragging herself from her comfy spot.
  69. Sophia’s room was thick with the ripe scent of personal neglect, along with the stale mustiness that came about whenever a room was shut for a length of time. Sekhmet went straight for the lump in the middle of the bed, yanking off the quilt and sheets in one fell swoop.
  71. Disheveled and haggard, the only indication from Sophia that she was still alive was the subtle rise and fall of her flanks and a quick flick of her eyes to the goddesses looming overhead.
  73. “You look like hell,” Sekhmet said with a barely concealed frown, drawing a snort from Set.
  75. If the Sphinx had heard, she gave no indication. Her vacant stare kept on pointing somewhere in front of her, taking in everything and nothing at the same time.
  77. “You’ve slacked long enough. Do you remember what I told you when we met?” Sekhmet said. She paused, mostly out of courtesy. “I believe I told you that as long as you worked, you would be able to stay here.”
  79. Another long pause. Just as Sekhmet was about to say something else, Sophia licked her lips and muttered a response. “Oh.”
  81. “Well, that’s more than she said yesterday,” Set said, giving Sekhmet a wry look.
  83. Sekhmet returned the look with one of her own; a grave warning that she was not in the mood. She lowered herself eye-to-eye with Sophia, planting herself squarely in her line of vision. Unfocused at first, Sophia’s eyes came together on the face in front of her.
  85. “For almost a week you have done nothing. This is the only warning I will give you: Get up and tend to your chores, or you will be returned from whence you came.” Her tone was not unkind, nor impatient. There were no veiled threats, just a statement of what would happen should their informal contract continue to be ignored.
  87. Despite the lingering silence, Sekhmet felt no need to repeat herself. It took some time, but signs of life stirred in Sophia.
  89. “Okay.” Moving as if guided by some primal instinct rather than any intelligent thought, she made her way to the edge of the bed and slipped off.
  91. Her eyes roamed the room as if her surroundings were foreign, or she’d forgotten where she was, until they fell to her closet. She shuffled forward, her body swaying with every languid step.
  93. “Hold on,” Sekhmet said, and as if she were an obedient robot Sophia came to a halt and fixed her with an empty stare. “Before you put on your uniform, you need a bath – badly.”
  95. “Okay.” Sophia reoriented herself and resumed her shambling pace.
  97. “Certainly full of energy, isn’t she?” Set said as the Sphinx trundled out into the hall. “And so very obedient! I must say, I like the new Sophia.”
  99. Sekhmet spit Set with a look of disgust. “Do you, now? She may breathe and move, but I’ve seen more lively corpses. How can you say she was a success?”
  101. “She’s listening to you, isn’t she? When I tried to roll her out of bed or give her something to eat she was limp as rag,” Set said, speaking as if making a distant observation about a recovering patient.
  103. “We cannot use an unthinking husk,” Sekhmet said, exhaling sharply through her nose. “I did not realize she was so far gone.”
  105. Set shifted to her weight to a leg, standing with a paw on her hip and a look that said “I told you so” writ large on her face. “Shall we start looking for another candidate?”
  107. Cutting her losses and moving on was likely the best choice. She’d already gotten a significant return on her gamble – far better than with many of the others. But then, as now, her past-self was always watching, judging. Sekhmet turned her paw over, gaze lingering on the palm. She flexed once, forming a fist, then relaxed. “Not yet. We can afford a few months.”
  109. Disappointment, and also something not so malicious glinted in Set’s eye. “You’re far too soft.”
  111. “And what about you,” Sekhmet said with a sort of weary acceptance underlining her accusation. “You rely on Anubis too much.”
  113. “If I’m going to send families to the afterlife,” Set said, snapping her padded fingers together for effect to produce three small flames. “May as well keep them together.” Just as they’d appeared, the flames winked from existence, dying in a few thin tendrils of smoke.
  115. --
  117. “Pleasure working with you, miss,” the foreman said, sporting a faded, blue-collar smile.
  119. “I look forward to future arrangements,” Set said, pressing a solitary, weighty coin of gold into the foreman’s palm. “It’s difficult to find a company that can act with… discretion.”
  121. His smile grew, and without looking at his hand, closed his fingers around the coin and deposited it into his pocket. “We strive to ensure our preferred clients are satisfied. Please don’t hesitate to call us for any of your future needs.”
  123. “I’ll keep that in mind,” Set said with a nod. She watched as the foreman hopped in the last of the trucks and drove off, forming the caboose of the excavation crews’ convoy.
  125. Now that they were alone, they could get down to the real business at hand.
  127. Back in the tent at their camp, Sekhmet was busying herself with a few remaining details on her tablet and Sophia was doing as she had been for the past two weeks – keeping things tidy and neat. Even in the desert she saw fit to sweep away errant grains of sand, as if acting on autopilot.
  129. They both glanced up as Set threw open the entry flap to the tent and strode in, but Sophia was quick to look away.
  131. “Well, they’ve packed up and left,” Set said, making straight for a chair. She plopped into it sideways, stretching out and relaxing as the air-conditioning breeze dried her brow.
  133. “Excellent,” Sekhmet said with a note of excitement. “Now we can finally take a peek inside.”
  135. “Hurray,” Set said, dry as unbuttered toast. “Can’t wait to poke around in all the dust and dirt.”
  137. Sekhmet quirked a brow as she tapped on her tablet’s screen. “I’m surprised.”
  139. “About what?”
  141. Sekhmet said nothing as she finished taking a few notes, then set the small computer down. “Here we are, one step closer, and you do not seem to care in the least.”
  143. “Closer, sure, but we’re still a ways off,” Set said, lounged back in her chair with an arm covering her face. “Besides, this one’ll probably be missing, too.”
  145. The corner of Sekhmet’s lip came up, despite the memory of tracking down the last key they’d acquired. Only took nearly two centuries to find the private collection it’d been stashed in. “Considering this temple has been buried for at least two thousand years, I think we’ll find it largely intact.”
  147. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” Set said in a grumble, then sighed and slumped forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Fortune already threw us a bone with the Sphinx; I don’t think she’s that generous.”
  149. At her mention Sophia stirred, but remained silent as she made her rounds.
  151. Sekhmet found herself genuinely curious about Set’s pessimism and indifference. Her gaze lingered on the Fire Goddess for an extra moment, as if attempting to divine her thoughts. “There’s only one way to find out.”
  153. “Well, maybe something interesting will happen,” Set said, mostly to herself as she dragged herself from her chair.
  155. Just a stone’s throw away, the remains of the temple gleamed beneath the hot sun. Buried deep under the sands and hidden from time, the sandstone was pristine as the day it’d been laid. Rich granite obelisks and statues had passed unweathered, and much of the engravings and detail work remained as clear as they’d been over three thousand years ago.
  157. As the trio came to the entrance of the temple, they were greeted by a modest gate of solid stone and bronze rather than a grand, ornate thing designed to awe and humble those who would dare tread upon holy ground. Simple as it may be, it was still impossibly heavy for even an army of people to force open without considerable effort.
  159. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Set said, motioning towards the slab that barred the way in.
  161. Sekhmet just rolled her eyes. “Afraid of a little labor?”
  163. “Someone needs to supervise, after all.”
  165. Well, whatever – she’d probably be able to do it faster alone, anyways. Standing before the entry, Sekhmet sized it up: A few feet taller than her, maybe three people wide. Yes, she’d be fine. Assuming the mechanism normally used to open and shut it hadn’t seized shut; that’d probably make her break a bit of sweat.
  167. “So why does this place only have one entrance?” Set asked, taking her best supervisory stance. Which bore a strong resemblance to someone just loitering about.
  169. “I would assume it was to ensure no one could sneak in unnoticed,” Sekhmet said as she looked over the stone gate’s surface for some place to find a grip. Unfortunately, much like the rest of the structure, it was nearly pristine. Pulling a decently sized chisel from her pack, she decided on making her own holds.
  171. Set hummed loudly, enough to make sure Sekhmet heard. “The Watchers sure took their name seriously.”
  173. Halting mid-swing, Sekhmet stared at the stupidly smirking Jackal, mouth agape. “That was bad, even for you.”
  175. Set cackled, all too pleased with herself – she’d even got a reaction out of Sophia, though it wasn’t more than an extra-long blink. Still, it was something. “Still,” she said once her gakakas had subsided, “If there’s only one way in and one way out, who stayed behind to shut the door?”
  177. Two swings and two sharp cracks later, Sekhmet produced two satisfactory handholds. That very same question had tickled her brain ever since enough of the temple had been excavated to give her a good look around it. There was definitely something different about this temple; that thought alone excited her inner explorer and got the tip of her tail twitching non-stop.
  179. Giving each of the newly fashioned grips a tug, Sekhmet squared herself, took in a deep breath, and heaved upwards with all her might. In an instant the goddess’ muscles squirmed and exploded with power, turning hard as steel under her skin as she focused her strength through grit teeth. Ancient, time-beaten gears were forced into action for the first time in millennia, creaking and groaning in protest of their sudden awakening.
  181. With a final shout Sekhmet forced the last few inches upwards and a raucous clang boomed as holds slid into place, holding the gate captive. Even though she’d exerted the strength of a dozen people at the peak of their fitness, the effect on Sekhmet was little more than a few deeper breaths than normal.
  183. Set clapped her paws together, or rather, tapped one against the other. And Sophia just had her usual blank face, save for a few sparks of something going on inside. “I have to admit, that’d be a monumental feat for me to pull off.”
  185. Sekhmet cringed. “That was bad for a different reason,” she said, packing away her chisels.
  187. “I work with what I’ve got,” Set said with half-shrug.
  189. Standing before the gaping maw of the temple, Sekhmet peeked in. The wash of light from the desert sun made it more difficult than usual to see more than a short distance inside, necessitating some light be shed on the situation. “As do I. After you, Prometheus,” Sekhmet said, sporting a grin that held a wicked edge.
  191. “Really? I’m just a flashlight to you?” Set said, pushing her brows together and sticking out her lower lip.
  193. “Yes. Now get in there. And come along, Sophia – stay close.”
  195. Ever the intrepid explorer, Set begrudgingly lit a sphere of fire and ambled inside into the deep abyss. “Why not just strap a lamp to the Sphinx? Maybe then she’d be useful. Plus, you wouldn’t need to drag me in here.”
  197. Sophia had obeyed Sekhmet’s command to stick near a little too well – her bristling fur rubbed against the goddess’ bare leg. “That wouldn’t be as fun,” Sekhmet said, letting her eyes wander across the near-seamless stonework and pillars that made up the grand hall. “What would I do without your pleasant conversation?”
  199. In contrast to the plain exterior, the interior was every bit as grand as place of worship to Ra ought to be. Intricate and detailed inlays and carvings and jewels adorned pillars, the ceiling, and even the floor. Dust covered polished silver discs, still angled as if awaiting to fill the room with light from the long-sealed slits dotted along the walls.
  201. “This is… I had not expected this,” Sekhmet said, her voice hushed not by awe but by revelation. While the stonework mural on the floor was magnificent in its depiction of Ra lighting the world from the prow of his ship, it was the one painted on the far wall that captivated her.
  203. Sophia scampered along, struggling to keep pace with Sekhmet’s long strides.
  205. “Seems like a normal temple to me,” Set said, pausing to glower at the floor mural before turning her attention to the stanchions affixed to the pillars. Each held a torch, but despite her efforts most of them would not stay lit – the oil must not have been refilled before the last of the residents departed.
  207. Darting back and forth in front of the mural, Sekhmet was only a khaki-colored hat and set of round spectacles away from the stereotypical image of an archeologist on their first real dig. “Interesting! There’s far more to this place than the texts led me to believe.”
  209. “How so?” Set studied the depiction on the wall as well, but any nuances or meaning were lost to her – unlike Sekhmet, she’d not kept abreast of the intricacies of a long dead language or symbolism.
  211. “Seems the Watchers had an army,” Sekhmet said, running her paw across a row of soldiers. Some held spears, other swords, but the one thing that they had in common was they were all stacked like rows of corpses. The symbol of their order, the marred Eye of Ra, appeared throughout. “Quite a large one at that.”
  213. A small depiction of Anubis caught Set’s eye. “Hmm, she never told me she dealt with this lot.”
  215. “She’s probably the one who oversaw the mass burial,” Sekhmet said, finished with her analysis of the ancient art.
  217. Set glanced around the hall. “You can’t mean here?”
  219. “I think,” Sekhmet said, full of scholarly anticipation as she peered around a small doorway to the side of the mural, “this tomb is going to be rather sprawling.”
  221. “Fantastic,” Set said with a long sigh. “And here I was, thinking we wouldn’t be in here for more than a few hours.”
  223. Sekhmet’s smile hinted that she didn’t mind that particular inconvenience too much. Stepping further in, a short passage opened into a small, circular chamber with half a dozen ornate coffins placed against the walls, oriented so their golden death masks would observe all who dared enter.
  225. The guardians were largely ignored by the goddesses, but they gave Sophia pause. She couldn’t hold their gaze, resorting instead to staring at her paws, unable to stand against their accusations.
  227. The divine flashlight was the first to descend the spiral staircase in the center of the room. “Sprawling was an understatement,” came Set’s words, echoing up the stone stairs.
  229. Owing to the narrow passage, Sekhmet couldn’t see around Set, who had come to a complete standstill at the foot of the stairs. No time for pleasantries, only shoving!
  231. “Hey!”
  233. With the roadblock cleared, Sekhmet reached the center of the chamber and spun round. Six passages ran from the central hub, seemingly stretching on for hundreds of feet. This was going to be quite the task indeed.
  235. A cursory exploration down one corridor revealed a series of offshoots, chambers, and antechambers – most of which were filled with plain coffins or even bare mummies, standing proud with weapons fastened to the bundles of ancient linen and long-decayed flesh. More important than those, however, were the accommodations in each room – tables, beds, chests – things the dead wouldn’t have need of.
  237. “I can’t believe this,” Sekhmet said, “I’ve never heard of such a massive underground tomb being constructed. Who knows what’s down here?”
  239. “The key, hopefully,” Set said, having decided taking a seat against a wall was the best course of action. “You’re sure it’s here?”
  241. “What better place to keep a key than under this kind of guard?”
  243. “Guards don’t do a whole lot of guarding when they’re dead,” Set said, giving Sekhmet a sideways glance.
  245. Pacing around the outside of the circular room, Sekhmet began chipping small identifiers into the walls. “The guards weren’t always dead. I don’t think this place was intended to be a crypt.”
  247. Set snorted. “Well, it is now. Let’s worry about the why later, shall we?” With a snap of her fingers a flame appeared on the ceiling. In the next moment it split in two, each racing to meet its twin on the other side, forming a circle of light. From the circle came six ribbons, racing out as if following a trail of gasoline above their heads. Though not quite the same standard as a modern office building, the new overhead lighting would be an archeologist’s dream.
  249. “Good work on the lights,” said the resident ruins-aficionado. “We’re still going to need a few things if we’re to spend any length of time here, however.”
  251. “Good thing we have a pack mule with us,” Set said, patting the Sphinx’ back.
  253. Sophia recoiled as if she’d been shocked, retreating to the relative safety of Sekhmet. Both goddesses were momentarily stunned; that’d been the strongest reaction from her ever since the incident. Perhaps her walls were finally starting to come down, though without the stability they provided it was difficult to gauge just how she’d end up.
  255. --
  257. Dragging the steel point down the stone as if it were the most arduous task possible, Set put the finishing touches on her mark. “Well that’s number 98 done with. Are we done yet?”
  259. “It would go faster if you didn’t drag your feet so much,” Sekhmet remarked, finishing up with up with her little alcove across the hall.
  261. “Me? Dragging my feet? Never,” Set said, covering her chest with a paw and standing far too upright. “I’m simply making sure I take my time to inspect everything thoroughly.”
  263. An entire day and night cooped up with Set, making the same comments and bitching about the same things, had left Sekhmet’s humor on reserve. “Whatever,” she said as she crossed off both rooms on her map.
  265. Set smirked to herself as she looked down the hall one way, then the other. “By the way, where’s our pack-Sphinx?”
  267. Pulling out her phone to check the time, Sekhmet’s brows raised, then lowered. “Good question. She’s been gone over an hour”
  269. “Maybe she set off a trap?” Set said, ever the voice of optimism. “Crushed by a boulder, perhaps?”
  271. Sekhmet just stared, making it perfectly clear what she was saying despite not actually saying anything. “Traps,” as they were often depicted in film didn’t quite exist, but that wasn’t to say certain safeguards weren’t implemented when secrets were are stake. The sort of mechanisms required to make spears shoot out of a wall or drop a ceiling onto someone and raise it again were far beyond the capabilities of ancient Egyptians. Set knew that was well as anyone.
  273. “You never know,” Set said. “Where’d she go off, anyways?”
  275. It took a moment for Sekhmet to unwind herself. “I asked her to grab a few things I left in 27,” she said, leading the way through the twists and turns. If not for her map and the markings they’d been leaving at intersections, they’d get lost for certain.
  277. Set poked into the room in question and looked around. Plenty of mummies, bits of armor, swords, and ceremonial trinkets, but no Sphinx. “You sure she knew where she was going?”
  279. “That’s odd,” Sekhmet said, standing in the center of the room. “There were a set of tracks leading in here. Where could she have… Wait, why’s that sarcophagus on the floor?”
  281. Set followed Sekhmet’s gaze to the fallen coffin and hunched down over it. In the recess the casket had formerly occupied, there was a large gap of nothingness where something should have been – namely, a wall. “Well, look at this. There’s a passage here.”
  283. “What? Are you sure?” Sekhmet said, squatting down, leaning forward onto the sarcophagus. Quite by surprise, her paw went straight through the face of it.
  285. “Build quality isn’t what it used to be, is it?” Set cackled.
  287. Sekhmet blinked once or twice, shaking the bits of dry, rotted wood from her paw. “This was covering up that hole?”
  289. “Seems that way, doesn’t it?” Set said, peering inside. “Told you there were traps.”
  291. “I’d hardly call this a trap,” Sekhmet said, shoving the cedar box of a sarcophagus out of the way. “What’s in there?”
  293. While something the size of say, a young Sphinx could easily worm their way through, it’d be a tight fit for those slightly larger. Fortunately the tunnel wasn’t terribly long; sending a little bolt of fire down its length revealed it couldn’t be more than ten feet. And, as a bonus, a set of paws were visible at the far side. “Seems our wayward maid did sneak in there. Kinda paws up at the moment, though.”
  295. For Sophia to poke inside on her own was rather odd, though she was a curious sort. Before she killed a few hundred people, that is. Sekhmet’d told her to report anything strange and not explore on her own, an order she was certain the new Sophia wouldn’t have an issue following to the letter. “Well, guess I’ll have to take a look,” Sekhmet said, crawling up to the passage on her knees. However, it became apparent as soon as her shoulders touched both sides her plan wasn’t going to work. One of the many downsides to being the giant she was meant the world was typically a size or three too small.
  297. “Scratch that,” she said, abandoning her attempt. “I think you’re going to have to.”
  299. To say that Set balked would be putting it mildly. “Me? You want me to crawl through there?”
  301. Ordinarily Sekhmet would never ask Set to bend a knee, let alone crawl, but these were extenuating circumstances. “We don’t know what’s happened to her, she could be dead.”
  303. Ice, rather than flame, brimmed in Set, dropping the temperature in the room a few degrees. Sekhmet had to play her most powerful card, even if was a pure bluff. “The key is likely in there as well.”
  305. A range of complicated emotions played across Set, but Sekhmet’s gamble worked. The atmosphere thawed, but only just. “It better be.”
  307. As Sekhmet had, Set approached the small passage and wiggled her way in, only she managed to slip her shoulders in. The real challenge came with her hips, but with some degree of effort she managed to disappear inside the tunnel, accompanied by a litany of profanity and guttural exclamations.
  309. The going was slow, but finally Set emerged at the other end.
  311. Beside the fallen sphinx was a plain black box, its contents partly spilled – a cylinder of stone, darker than the reaches of night and emptiness, and a small white case bearing the symbol of the Watchers. Sophia was still breathing, but the way she was laid out meant her sleep was not the sort experienced by the willing.
  313. “What’s in there? How’s Sophia?” Sekhmet said, her voice echoing down the stone passage.
  315. Very mindful of the stone, Set used a ceremonial dagger from the podium upon which the box had been resting to poke the white case away. Collecting it up, she fiddled with the clasp and it popped open, revealing a gleaming, golden medallion. To the common eye it was nothing more than a gold coin, but a goddess could sense the magic contained within. “You’re right,” Set said, willing to accept crawling about in exchange for the object, “found the key. Oh, and Sophia is… alive.”
  317. Huh. Sekhmet rocked back on her haunches; she ought to bluff about things more often. On one hand, it was great they’d found the key, on the other, it meant she was going to have to investigate the secret of this temple alone. There was, however, something odd about how Set answered the question of Sophia.
  319. Like before, it was a task to shuffle through the tunnel, now made even more trying by shoving an unconscious girl and ebony chest along the way. Once free of the claustrophobic confines, Set dusted herself off.
  321. “What’s in here?” Sekhmet said, cracking open the box as she spoke.
  323. Set plopped down next to the sleeping Sophia. “I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”
  325. “Why? Is it related to why she won’t wake up?”
  327. Of things all the rare things in the world, this was rare amongst those – Set knew what a relic of ages past was and Sekhmet didn’t. Yet, there wasn’t the usual smugness Sekhmet’d come to expect. Well, there was a tiny bit in the way the corners of her lips twisted up, but not nearly to the level there should have been.
  329. “Related to why this place is a mass grave, actually. It’s a soul stone.”
  331. Resting in the plain box, its appearance didn’t quite match its name. Sekhmet’d read about them here and there, but this was her first time seeing one. “You mean to say these people,” she indicated to the few mummies around them, “are in that?”
  333. “Yes, along with our Sphinx - though how this got out of Duat is quite the mystery. Anubis would be pissed if she found out,” Set said with a smirk. “That girl loses it if the scrolls on her shelves aren’t straight.”
  335. When it came to soul magic, Sekhmet was out of her league. Not only was it so far removed from what she was capable of as possible, what was written of it would fill, at best, a few pages. While not a practitioner herself, Set still had first-hand experience owing to her daughter and brother. “So, how do we get her back?”
  337. “Oh, that’s easy,” Set said, crossing her arms over her knees. “I look into the stone, find her soul, then sort of shoo her along back into her body.”
  339. Too easy. “What’s the catch?” The obvious problem seemed to be finding one soul amongst a thousand. To Sekhmet, the soul was kind of this amorphous blob of non-existence that existed.
  341. Set lowered her head, touching her chin to her paws. “In there, a soul is just a soul. But when I stuff her soul back into her flesh, she’ll glimpse my memories, and I hers. Unless she’s got a strong ego, she won’t be able to tell which memories are hers.”
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